An Overview of French Spelling
It should come as no surprise that there is a great disconnect between how French is spoken and how it is written. While the spoken language has continued to evolve over the centuries, little has changed in the way words are spelled. The result is that how a word "sounds" is not usually how it is written. For example, while the word beaucoup has only four sounds (b-o-k-u), it is written with eight letters!
Be careful with words that mean the same, but have slightly different spellings in English and in French. Some of the most common pairs of this type are given in the following table:
||-remember they both have the same number of letters, but the French one ends in -e (so there's one less "d").
||-there is no "h" sound in French
||-French needs the "c" here; otherwise it would have a /z/ sound
||-this is plural in French
Homophones are words that are pronounced the same, but have different spellings. These differences must be respected when writing. Some of the most common homophones are presented below:
- sa ("his/hers"); ça ("that")
- c'est ("it is"); ces (these); ses ("his/hers"), s'est (être)
- parler ("to speak"); parlé ("spoken")
- peu ("few"); peux/peut (je/il form of pouvoir)
- son ("sound"/"his"/"hers"); sont ("are")
- ou ("or"); où ("where")
- a (form of avoir); à ("to/at")
- cent (100); sans ("without"); sang ("blood"), sens (sentir)
- vert ("green"); vers ("toward")
- la ("the"); là ("there")
- ce "(this"); se (reflexive pronoun)
When do I use ç?
The letter "c" can represent the sound /k/ or the sound /s/. Generally, it represents /k/ when followed by "a" (e.g.: casser) "o" (e.g.: colline) or "u" (e.g.: cube); it represents /s/ when followed by "i" (e.g.: cire) "y" (e.g.: cycle) or "e" (e.g.: centre). There are cases, however where "c" precedes "a", "o" or "u" and the word is pronounced /s/. This exception is indicated by using the cedilla, e.g.: ça, façon, reçu.
Spelling reform (1990)
Throughout the centuries, various changes have been made to the French spelling systems. The most recent (and important) one took place in 1990. It is important to keep in mind that the previous and post-reform spellings are accepted in writing (though some people are slow to accept the recent changes). Some noteworthy changes are:
a) the circumflex accent is optional for i and u if it does not distinguish two different words. For example, one can write il connait or il connaît; however, the circumflex is still required for the past participle of devoir (j'ai dû réagir rapidement) since it allow us to distinguish it from the preposition du (e.g.: Elle vient du Québec).
b) numbers are joined with hyphens, e.g.: cinq-cent-vingt-huit.
c) the word oignon can also be written ognon.
While not everyone agrees on the rules of punctuation, here are few points to keep in mind:
- At the beginning of a sentence, use a comma after Cependant, Pourtant, Toutefois, D'abord, Premièrement, Finalement and Par contre.
- Use a comma before the word mais.
- Most European writers put a space before colons, semi-colons, question marks and exclamation marks; North American writers do not (nor do Swiss writers).
- Do not use a capital letter after a quotation mark, unless it is a proper name.
- Use a comma after sentences introduced by Quand, e.g.: Quand j'avais 16 ans, je suis allée en France.
- One does not usually use a comma before the word et.
- When writing the date, do not put a comma before the year, e.g.: le 21 novembre 1963.
- When indicating time, use "h" rather than a colon, e.g.: 2h30.